Environment and sustainability
Most early Quakers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lived in farms or small settlements and knew at first hand their dependence on nature’s resources in their own localities. The duty to take care of ‘God’s creation’ and to live in harmony with it in their own contexts would have been very evident to them. Even then, however, some Friends were in a position to see a bigger picture.
In the 1680s, for example, when William Penn was laying out Philadelphia, his “Greene Countrie Town”, he required the settlers to preserve one acre of trees for every five acres cleared. Penn wanted to prevent the settlers destroying their local environment for short-term gain: he also saw that their spiritual and physical health would prosper through taking care of the environment. Later, as the Industrial revolution unfolded in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some Quaker entrepreneurs showed they understood this too, by working to provide a good living environment for workers and their families.
The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.
Soon some Friends began to study the natural world, notably in the fields of botany and meteorology, often using their knowledge in practical ways, and educating others. Curiosity about “God’s creation’ led eighteenth century Friends on both sides of the Atlantic to study plants and trees and to share specimens and knowledge with each other. John Fothergill and others explored medicinal benefits: some established gardens and arboreta for the public to enjoy. One of these, John Bartram, was described by the great plant classifier Linneaus as the “greatest natural botanist in the world”, and has been called the father of American botany. Later the two Henry Doubledays influenced the modern organic farming and gardening movements. Alongside this, several Friends played significant roles in the development of weather forecasting.
During the 20th century, awareness of the finiteness of the earth’s non-renewable resources grew rapidly, as did an understanding of the increasingly significant impact of humanity on the natural world with regard to pollution, depletion of resources, agricultural practices, global warming, and much else. ‘Earthcare’ became an important and ongoing focus for Quaker witness and continues to be so. Phrases such as ‘right relationship’ and ‘right-sharing’ began to be used to encapsulate what many Friends were striving for.
At international level QUNO continues to pay particular attention to climate change, to sustainable food systems, and to the use of natural resources. FWCC, Quakers global consultative committee, fosters communication of ideas, and facilitates collaboration.
Quakers have been active in modern nonviolent direct action campaigning for many years, locally, nationally and globally. Quakers Irving and Dorothy Stowe were among the founders of Greenpeace. Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) organises nonviolent direct action campaigns and works with likeminded groups worldwide.
Many national and regional Quaker organizations work on aspects of environmental sustainability. In the US, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) advocates on environmental issues in Washington. Some AFSC projects have environmental dimensions. Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) is a network of North American Friends exploring their spiritual connection with the natural world. The Quaker Institute for the Future researches and writes about key ideas such as ‘right relationship’.
In Britain Friends have pledged themselves to become a low-carbon sustainable community, and Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) works to develop thinking about sustainability and climate justice, and what a sustainable economy could entail. EcoQuakers in Ireland works on similar issues.
Australian and New Zealand Friends are also active on environmental matters. Many groups of Quakers in Africa work locally on sustainable agriculture, and on tree planting schemes to reduce erosion and to absorb carbon dioxide.